Monday, January 23, 2012

Hammers and echoes

It is said that when the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Last week I was lucky enough to be handed a hammer right before encountering a pile of sticking-up nails. This week's Technology Tuesday is about a part in my personal AV journey when I was given such a hammer right before encountering some nails.

The latest stop in my new AV engineer training is certification with DSPs, or Digital Signal Processors. For the uninitiated, these are audio processing devices that perform a variety of functions in an AV system:

1) Matrix mixing. Sending any one of a number of inputs to any one of a number of outputs.
2) Providing gain control (volume adjustments) to inputs and outputs.
3) Processing, such as level control, filtering, and acoustic echo cancellation

It's in the last part that the devices have their most interesting and powerful features, and where one sees the benefit of digital processing. Acoustic echo cancellation in particular is an important part of any conferencing system. If one connects to another room containing microphones and speakers, the microphones at the far-end location will "hear" the audio from the speakers at that same location. The problem is that if the microphones at your location also hear your speakers, it creates a loop in which the people to whom you're talking will hear a delayed echo of their own voice. An Acoustic Echo Cancellation (AEC) systems compare the signal from your microphones to the incoming signal from the far end and strips their audio from the signal being transmitted. In short, your AEC system prevents your audience from hearing themselves.

What was most interesting  to me is that the very next workday after learning exactly how to set this up,I found myself in a new conference room, making a video call to someone who complained that he heard himself, and that my level was too low. This seemed easy. First to adjust the level. The conversation went like this:

"How does that sound?"

"You're too low"

clickclickclick "How about now?"

"Still too low"

clickclickclick "Now?"

"Still low".

At this point I'd nearly maxed out all of my adjustments, and was starting to doubt that I'd actually learned anything. In desperation (and suspecting something wrong), I muted the conference output.


"still low".

"Let me call you back in a few minutes."

The problem, of course, is that the wrong output wire was connected to the outgoing videoconference, so I could adjust until the cows came home without changing anything. I swapped the wire, adjusted the loudness, and made the echo go away.

Moral of the story: Even if life did just give you a hammer, make sure that you're using it on the right nail.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Final thoughts on Copyright, SOPA, and this week; protests

My thoughts on copyright, plus, read through to the end for this week's dose of fiction.

By now this weeks' fight - at least most of it - is over, with the good guys having won a dramatic even if not decisive victory.People asked very good questions about the balance between protection of intellectual property and freedom of speech, the rights of creators to their creations and the rights of those who own information channels to free distribution of data. The question not enough asked, though, is the bigger one of what copyright is for in the first place, and how it has been abused.

Interestingly, the only actual creators whose opinions I've heard on this (ranging from freelancers and independent bloggers to big names like Trent Reznor and Neil Gaiman) oppose this effort to protect what is proportedly their rights. Why? The focus of copyright protection law hasn't been the protection of actual creators in years.  Instead, it's focused on protecting the exclusive rights of investors over the commons.

To give one exampe, JRR Tolkein created Lord of the Rings from a combination of his own imagination and the folklore which is our shared cultural heritage. I'd argue that his creation has a pervasive enough effect on how we see mythical beings as to be a continuation of that same heritage. Tolkein, of course, has long since passed away. We can't, however, follow in his footsteps and use his takes on mythic characters because his heirs own the rights to Middle Earth and its denizens. 

Copyright law is not protecting the creator of Middle Earth, but his children.
Not the creator of Mikey Mouse, but the multi-billion dollar enterntainment and media conglomerate that he founded.
Not the creators of Superman, but the company that cheated those creators out of their rights.

A decade ago a Russian scientist and writer named Eskov Kiirill penned a counterhistory to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy called The Last Ringbearer, which told the story from the point of view of the losers. I'm not sure I'd call it an artistic success, but it was an interesting thought experiment, and the kind of thing one can do within the commons. Under current copyright law, of course, it's illegal. Thus, legacy of JRR Tolkein is protected over an actual current creator in Mr. Kirill. (And yes, it is possible to riff on another author's work without using their actual characters, as Jacqueline Carey did when she filed the serial numbers off Tolkein's work for her The Sundering duology, which in my opinion did a better job of answering Tolkein's flaws than Kirill's work. The point is that one shouldn't have to. Dungeons and Dragons shouldn't need to rename Hobbits as "halflings" just to appease the lawyers).
Solutions? The first is easy. Copyright protection dies with the creator, unless the creator wants to give it away sooner. Being the descendent of a creator grants no  moral rights to their work, nor the right to keep the commons from growing. After we fix copyright we can talk about protecting it.
And now, as promised, your weekly dose of fiction. Another vignette from a photo-prompt. (Prompt from photographer Eric Albee, shared by Bliss Morgan (You can find Eric on Flickr, and Bliss on G+ or Wordpress:
The Crimson Ninja finaly caught up to me on a lonely rooftop, high above the city. Finally face-to-face after years of sparring through our henchmen and proxies, shell companies and lawyers, minions and cunning brass robot warriors. Was I a bit slower in my old age, a bit less careful about leaving clues? Perhaps. Had I been relying too much on ancient magics and demon allies, not enough  on my own wits? Certainly. Did part of me, the secret part I don't even know myself - did that part of me want to get caught? I'd say not. Give the Crimson Ninja her due.
Truth be told, neither of us was a hero. She spun a web of extortion, protection rackets, and cons to rival my own, although she did always free the sex-slaves, return their stolen passports, and even buy them a ticket back home. I suppose I should be proud of her for that. It was finaly over now. She'd followed me, caught up to me, and had me cornered. Up on the roof with nowhere to flee.
She stood cautiously, in a ready position, the blade Heart's Razor in her hand.
I'd never named my blade. I tightened my hand around it, white-knuckle tight as if preparing for the first fight of my life. Or the last.
"Alli", I said, "looks like this is it."
Her eyes narrowed in concentration, as if trying to see through my mask. "You know me? How?"
"Oh, please. You think that absurd strip of makeup is enough to hide your face?" I pulled off my more restricting but far more functional mask and looked at her, eye to eye. "Especially from your own father?"
The point of her blade dipped, just a bit. "Dad? What... oh, fuck. How did I not know." Her voice got smaller. "I always thought you'd been cheating on Mom, all those years, and after... fuck."
I lifted my blade into a ready position. "You must have suspected. You were always a smart girl."
She dropped the blade. Tears welled up in her eyes, but her body was rock steady, her shoulders relaxed. I felt a lightness in my body, a sense of peace. With a deep breath of the clean night air I raised my nameless blade and charged.
She was as fast as I knew she'd be, the poisoned dagger out of her sleave into her hand flung into my belly faster than an eyeblink. She looked into my eyes as the poison burned me, as my life forced ebbed. "I'm sorry, Daddy".
"No... this is right. A child should ...replace the parent. I'm proud". Those were my last words as I released my mortal flesh, relying on arcane secrets to preserve my spirit at least for a time. Now a silent ghost, I watch this city, waiting to see what the Crimson Ninja will make of it, now that it is hers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Farewell Umi. We hardly knew you!

Picture phones have been with us for a long time, at least in our dreams. We can go back 50 years:

“ fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore. They will only travel for pleasure.” - Arthur C Clarke, 1964.

Or 100.

“The first thing Mr. Smith does is activate his phonotelephote, the wires of which communicate with his Paris mansion. The telephote! Here is another great triumph of modern science. The transmission of speech is an old story; the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires is a thing but of yesterday. A valuable invention indeed; Mr. Smith this morning is full of blessings for the inventor, when by its aid he is able distinctly to see his wife despite her great distance.” --Jules Verne

Or centuries back to tales of magic mirrors, crystal balls, and seeing-stones. We've always longed to see things from afar, to stand before a larger-than-life image like Captain Kirk aboard the enterprise and carry on a real conversation as if we were in the same room. What we've dreamed of is telepresence more than just teleconferencing; creation of the illusion of a shared space across miles. Commercial telepresence systems come close enough to that dream to say that, for a business with enough money to spend, were there. At home it's another matter. Skype doesn't do it. Google chat with hangouts dont do it. Both are either anchored to your computer or squeezed into your tablet or cell phone, none of which is likely to be the biggest, nicest video monitor in your home. That honor would go to your TV, where the folks at Cisco Systems tried to bring the telepresence experience to the home market through their Umi home videoconferencing system.

I don't need to go into the reasons for the demise of Umi; other people have already said it, and it's fairly simple. Umi was expensive. Starting near six hundred dollars plus a hefty monthy subscription fee it was very expensive - at least from a consumer's point of view, and especially in comparison with Skype which used the computer you already own and perhaps another fifty dollars worth of hardware if you need to buy a webcam.

This explanation is simple, intuitive and, in my opinion, completely misses the bigger point.

The price, while high for a consumer, isn't all that high for what one would be getting. I work for AVI-SPL, a  company which last year introduced our own branded telepresence solution (Chameleon) at a very reasonable for telepresence cost of over a hundred thousand dollars.

Chameleon Telepresence System
 In addition to the cameras, codecs and control system this also includes displays, customized furniture, and professional services in the installation, setup, and calibration of the system. Even given the fact that what anyone in any but the very highest echelons of the consumer market wants is more a single endpoint (industry-speak for one videoconferencing set-up) than a fully immersive telepresence room, one is still looking to scale thousands of dollars worth of  commercial-quality equipment and services to some kind of reasonable consumer level. One could argue that Umi, with a pan-tilt-zoom camera capale of 1080p video was a bargain at six hundred dollars.

So what do we do if we can't afford a professional quality conference system? One vision, as  Cisco tried to do before pulling the plug, there were a cheaper alternative, say perhaps with video at 720p. It's still "high definition", will look great on your screen, and could be priced much more agressively. If enough early adopters buy into the idea to create a a reasonably sized ecosystem of videoconference-equipped homes people's expectations could slowly increase to the poibt that they expect more quality and see webcam-based chat as a toy.

That is, as I said, one vision. The mistake it makes is the same mistake in taking the predictions of Mr. Verne and Mr. Clarke too literally. Reread Clarke's prediction:

“ fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore. They will only travel for pleasure.” - Arthur C Clarke, 1964.

Depending on ones business, we still do travel. We travel for business when we need to shake someone's hand, when we have physical work that needs doing, or when we want to show the seriousness of our commitment. We also still travel for pleasure. Communications haven't just moved our work to our our home, they've moved our office into our pocket. They've taken the phone off our kitchen wall and put it in our pockets. They've taken reference books off the library shelves and put them into our pockets.

They've put the world in our pockets.

 The idea of VTC-equipped homes bring me back over twenty years to my grandparents' move to Florida. The family had a ritual that each Sunday morningwe'd gather around the speaker phone and call to chat,to catch up on the past week, and to be together as a family.
And that is why I don't see a future for high price high quality home conferencing. Because, for better or worse, it isn't wenty years ago. Habits have changed, communication has become much more quick and much less formal. A better, more immersive conference system is a gather 'round the hearth kind of technology, which doesn't seem to fit today's more mobile, on-the-go world. I see the future as everyone grabbing their tablets and smartphones for, say,  Google hangout and bring the hearth to them - into their pockets - rather than take the world back out of our pockets and throw it up on the wall.

For a business meeting it's worth gathering everyone around a virtual table to sit down, fire up your laptop, and get to work. A chat amongst friends or family members? I suspect that most of us would rather keep it in our pockets.

Asalways, the future will tell.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Deals with the Devil

In my New Year reformat I'll try to have a Fiction Friday every week, to go with Technology Tuesday. I'll perhaps toss in a Miscellanious Monday or even a non-alliterative midweek post if something else comes to mind that defies categorization but simply must be shared. Today we'll talk about one of my favorite characters. The Devil.

In some ways he's the Professor Moriarty of the Bible, rarely explicitly appearing (was Milton the first to conflate him with the serpent in the garden? Who named him as the accuser in the story of Job? Not, certainly, the original source material), but casting a shadow across the whole canon. The benefit to a writer is that this gives us a canvas that, while not completely blank, still has plenty of room to sketch the details as we wish to. I'd suggest that the Bible as a whole has this quality, given that ancient forms of literature relied more on narrative summary than painting actually detailed scenes. The Devil, however, feels special. He's a mirror through wish we can see our own dark side, he's rebellion, he's the ultimate rebellion against authority and if you accept the idea that he was the snake in the garden then he's the one who made us who we are. No snake means no bite of the forbidden fruit, no knowledge of good and evil, no learning to wear clothes and develop technology and write blogs. If you can read this, thank a serpent.

Following are a pair of deal with the devil stores; both came from prompts my fellow writers shared on the Google+. I don't take these daily prompt stories all that seriously, but use them as sources of inspiration and as a chance to stretch my writing muscles on days when my more serious work feels bit stuck. In one the Devil wins, in the other he loses.

The Devil usually wins by taking advantage of people's greed; the Devil doesn't trick you so much as setting you up to trick yourself. Inspiration for this came from Bliss Morgan's " Nightmare Fuel" prompt-a-day project on Google Plus. For those curious about such things, it was my non-literal take on this image by photographer David Swan:
Another Brick in the Wall
Aaron made the perfect deal with the devil. No signing away his soul, no performing one innocent-seeming yet surprisingly devastating task. No taking chances on fiddle contests or chess games. Just one cost, and even that was deferred. It would be taken at a time of the devil’s choosing, but Aaron still had it for now.
His voice.
Success was all Aaron had dreamed of, but he needed to be careful - so careful. He rose quickly and impressively in his law firm, writing brilliant briefs for cases going all the up to the Supreme Court, but always let someone else have the honor of arguing the case in person. There were times he knew he’d do better, but he couldn’t take the chance - no matter how much better he might have been, nothing would be worse than his voice to vanish mid-argument.

Even planning his wedding her remembered to be careful, eschewing the individual vows his fiance wanted for a simple “I do”. He could mouth that, if need be.

He was so careful that the right moment for the devil to strike never came. Decades later, after a long and comfortable life, the Aaron was visited by the Devil one more time. He knew his life was ending, but his lips curled into a smile.

“You never did take my voice, did you? I guess I won.”

The Devil smiled back. “Oh, but I did have it. I had it all along.”
The Devil’s smug smile was the last thing Aaron would see before breathing his last breath, and leaving this world forever.
Can the Devil lose? Of course he can, but I'm not partial to seeing him tricked, outgambled, outfiddled, etc. He's The Devil. Olderthan all of us put together, and has seen every trick. So how does one win? Perhaps by thinking outside the box, and changing the definition of what it means to "win". Here's a trifle I put together for Nina Pelletier's "dialog" prompt, also on Google+. The text is the Devil's side of the dialog; you can imagine the other half.

“My, my. So businesslike. I’d offer you a nice single-malt scotch or a glass of Bordeaux, but you seem the type to want your wits about you. Perhaps a nice cup of tea? I have one brewed from the dried husk of a hearty moss growing at the bottom of a stone well, touched by direct sunlight only twice a year. You’d be the only human to taste it.”

“No? Straight to business? Very well, but with an attitude like that I’m not sure you’ll enjoy the fruits of our deal. I daresay that you’re not taking this with a spirit of relish, of enjoyment. Live a little!”

“Ah yes, that brings back such memories. The good doctor would certainly have taken me up on the tea. For one so studious he had quite the sense of humor. The English playwright was far closer to the mark than the German on that score. Funny that.”

“Adjustments to the deal? Why, of course, of course. Times have changed and all that. The doctor was funnier than you, but I can tell that you’re much, much shrewder. You might get a good deal out of this after all. Some do you know.”

“No, really. I keep those quiet. Bad for the reputation. And, don’t tell him I said this, but the big guy doesn’t want word to get out. Let me just say that if anyone’s smart enough to get a happy ending, it’ll be you.”

“Adjust for inflation? That seems only fair, and very smart of you to ask. Tell you what, I’ll double it. That should be more than generous.”

“OK, you got me. Triple, and you keep your wits until the very end. So it’s a deal. Sign here, initial there, sign there.”

“Don’t be silly. That was the Englishman using poetic license. Consider it a metaphor. Ink is fine. There. So, would you like to make your first request now? Kick the tires on this new bargain?”

“Oh, that’s funny. As if you need me to tell you what you want. Should I enjoy the other fruits you’ll ask for too? The riches? The women?”

“You can’t be serious. Perhaps I underestimated you. The doctor never would have asked such a thing. Nor anyone else. Do you call yourself a man?”

“Fine. It is a deal, after all. A poem. He should have asked for a poem.”

“OK. You win. I just put the seed of it in your mind. Stay awake meditating on the thought I just gave you until sunrise, then write the first thoughts that flow into your mind. That’s it.”

“ you want that drink now or what?”
Again, not sure it did everything I was thinking, but it was fun to write and fun to share.

For those interested, Bliss is running another daily prompt project in January and February. You can find her  here.

Happy reading, happy writing! I'll see you all next week to discuss the world of AV on Technology Tuesday

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Year, New Adventures!

I'm waking this blog up for the New Year (+ a week or so) with a resolution to blog at least once a week on technology an once on writing. Today will be a personal sort of tech day:

In 2012 I'll be saying goodbye to my position as an AV Project Manager and moving to a position as an AV Project Engineer. I'll still be working on AV projects, but purely from the technical, system design side. This is week 1 of my training, in which I'll be getting certified with Clear One's installed DSP products. For the uninitiated, a DSP (or Digital Signal Processesor) is used for mixing, combining, and otherwise proessing audio. Most commercial DSPs have a whole host of functions, from general audio processes such as graphics equalizers and filters to conferencing-specific features like acoustic echo cancellation.

Some thoughts thus far:

This past year, I've taken the following training courses:
-SynAudCon principles of audio
-Extron AV Associate (advercation from Extron, a major manufacturer of AV switching and control gear)
-Infocom Design level one - environment (from the AV industry's leading trade organization)
-Clear One technical certification (in progress)

What to the above have in common? They all started explaining what audio is and how we measure it in decibels. It's been long enough since school that  a refresher on dB is welcome, including audio specific things like dB(SPL), dBu, dBV, and various forms of weighting dB(SPL).  (SPL is sound-pressure level. The loudness scale you usually see with speech around 64 or so and pain up near 120 are in dB(SPL). A-weighting gives larger numbers for high frequency sounds of the same actual amplitude because they are perceived as louder). I have now literally "learned" the same information four times in the past six months, and assume that Biamp (another DSP manufacturer) will teach me the same thing. I'll soon start dreaming in decibels.

On the technical side, acoustic echo cancellation is a neat thing and explains one of the reasons one needs signal processing in commercial conferencing installations. If someone calls from the outside, you'll hear their audio through room loudspeakers - usually ceiling mounted. These will likely be directly above table-top microphones, creating kind of a loop in which the remote presenters will hear an echo of themselves (usualy with a significant delay). Your echo cancellation will filter the incoming telco line from the mic to fix this, so AEC on the near end removes echo at the far-end.

Overall, it's a good start. The best thing is I get to do the Clear One stuff (and AutoCad training later this month) as a series of interactive webinars. The instructor shares his screen, gives a live lecture, and can answer questions via text or voice chat. The rest of my training will take me to distant and wondrous places such as Beaverton OR, Anaheim CA, and Rockleigh NJ.

More to come. Look for a writing post later in the week in which I might share a scrap or two of poetry.